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Saturday, November 18, 2017

Good and Bad Influences In Comedy

You'd have to have been living in  a white house to be unaware of the recent fuss over sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.  Recently American comedian Louis CK has been shown to be a despicable person, and people are lining up to say that they always knew his work was unacceptable.

What's bugging me about the recent comments on his work is that just a few weeks ago the same people were telling me he was a genius and I should watch him. The recordings made of him performing are unchanged. If they were "A work of genius" a few days back and they are byte for byte unchanged today then logically they should still be "A work of genius". Why should people's changed feeling about the artist affect the art itself? I have a strong dislike of gynophobia, homophobia & transphobia and have also not seen his work but this dissing of the work itself by people who were big fans a few days back seems to lack intellectual honesty. Rhetorical question for the people who were "big fans" last week: Did you think sexism & "Fag jokes" were OK before but aren't now? Is this just Louis CK, or does it also apply to artists who have not yet been outed?

The reason I never watched his work wasn't because I knew what was in it but because I choose not to watch American stand-up & my reason is to avoid being influenced by it. I grew up watching British and to a lesser extent New Zealand comedy. Over the last few years I've watched a lot of New Zealand stand-up. I'm influenced by all these things & so my comedy voice is influenced by them. I'm still working on my comedy voice and don't want additional influences affecting that.

So who were my comedy influences and how do I feel about them now? I want to list them chronologically, but which chronology? Order of production or order of becoming exposed to them? I've decided to compromise & list the ones who died before my childhood in production order & the others in order of exposure.

Comedians doing controversial work is not only not a new thing, it is found in the opus of the oldest comedians whose work survives.  According to Plato's Apology, the satire of Socrates in Aristophanes's play The Clouds (423 BCE) was a contributor to Socrates' trial and execution. Yes, Aristophanes is one of my comedy influences. He was a product of his age, a racist, sexist, bigot but in a good translation still funny. He also gave his characters lines that would be booed off stage today.
I want a town where the father of a handsome lad will stop in the street and say to me reproachfully as if I had failed him, "Ah! Is this well done, Stilbonides! You met my son coming from the bath after the gymnasium and you neither spoke to him, nor embraced him, nor took him with you, nor ever once twitched his parts. Would anyone call you an old friend of mine?" -- The Birds 414 BCE
To give the Athenians some credit, that play came in last place of the three plays in the festival finals that year. I think I could still read him, but the worst excesses would probably set my teeth on edge.

Next up the Roman courtier & satirist Gaius Petronius, or more precisely his Menippean satire The Satyricon (c 54-68 CE). This novel tells the story of the misadventures of the narrator, and his lover, a pretty sixteen-year-old servant boy. Throughout the novel, the narrator has a difficult time keeping his lover faithful to him as he is constantly being enticed away by others. (Wikipedia) Just in case you missed it his lover was his servant who would rather be with other men; a clear case of sexual harassment. I doubt I'll re-read this. The episodes were at best amusing and now would be difficult for me to read. Not because of the behaviour of the author but because of the assumptions inherent in the text.

Skipping forward a few years we have Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 to 1400). I actually went to the trouble of learning to read middle English so I could read Canterbury Tales in the original. The book is a mixture of funny tales, sad tales and, in the person of the Second Nun, virtuous tales presenting an ironic and critical perspective of his time.  Once again the societal attitudes expressed through the characters are an anathema to today's reader but  I could read many of the tales again for the comedy.

I know you're expecting me to mention Shakespeare, but I couldn't stand him.

Moving right along to something approaching times Oscar Wilde is one that should be an inspiration but isn't. I liked his plays, but got no inspiration from him. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897) had a profound affect on me, but not as a comedic source.
And all the while the burning lime
Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bone by night,
And the soft flesh by the day,
It eats the flesh and bones by turns,
But it eats the heart away.
...
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Gilbert and Sullivan on the other hand have inspired me. I liked the wittiness of their songs & my tendency to parody music comes at least in part from them. I've even done pastiches some of their songs from time to time. Here's a joke from my pre-Julia days:
What on Earth is "Soy milk"? Don't insult my intelligence. Look at a soy bean, it has no nipples. How do you milk something that small and still make a profit?

I think somewhere in the highest Swiss alps, in a secret farm, Nestle grow giant GM soy beans with cow teats.
[To the tune of Three little maids from school (1885):]
  • Three milk maids from the Alps are we
  • Each with a soy bean on her knee
  • We pump the milk into our pails
  • Our dairy free yogurt never fails
Did the Marx Brothers influence me? I don't know, I certainly liked their movies. Ditto Mel Brooks and the early Woody Allen.

Then there's a gap until the comedy of the 1950s. My father was a huge fan of Flanders and Swann and British radio comedy including The Goons, and Tony Hancock so I heard a lot of that while growing up.

Let's start with The Goon Show. I don't think I've ever heard any recordings of their early series with  Michael Bentine and co-written by Milligan, Eric Sykes and others but the later series written by Milligan with the classic line-up of Milligan, Seacumbe and Sellers were firm favourites. Unfortunately Milligan was highly racist in his attitudes towards South Asians and several of the shows were marred by his "Brown face" comedy. I think I could still listen to the show but I've matured a lot since then & I doubt I would find it as funny.

At the time Tony Hancock didn't make much of an impact on me, but what I've learned about him since has been inspirational. He was making radio at a time of catchphrases and stock characters being portrayed by the regular comedians on the show being pretty obvious about who they were. He wanted a truer comedy
to refine his craft, he had to ditch catch-phrases and become realistic. He argued, for example, that whenever an ad-hoc character was needed, such as a policeman, it would be played by someone like Kenneth Williams, who would appear with his well-known oily catchphrase 'Good evening'. Hancock believed the comedy suffered because people did not believe in the policeman, knowing it was just Williams doing a funny voice (Wikipedia)

Although they made their name a little earlier with their animal songs, Flanders & Swann are best known to me for their two recordings At The Drop of a Hat (1959) and At The Drop of Another Hat (1961). They did musical comedy with humorous introductions, were seated, one in a wheelchair and the other at the piano, but they were the first time I heard something approaching stand-up comedy. At one point I could sing most of their songs from memory and even reel off many of Michael Flanders' monologues and introductions. On the down side a few of of their songs were directly racist. I'm still pretty chill about their other songs though.

At some point I heard excerpts from Bill Cosby doing his stand-up routine. I think it was on the radio, as this long precedes the Internet & I've never bought a recording of his. I found his stories hilarious, especially the one about the kids breaking their bed by jumping on it. Since then he's done TV sitcoms and had his stories of childhood turned into a rather cheesy cartoon series. In addition, Cosby now stands accused of drug rape ruining the public persona he projected. I don't think I could bring myself listen to him again, but he was my introduction to stand-up comedy per se.

Then there was the Television. We got the American sitcom pap, and I have to admit most of it was highly forgettable as were most of the equivalent British shows but we also got some absolute gems in the form of the British sketch shows. The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show are two early examples of the genre.

The humour of The Frost Report was probably too mature for me to fully appreciate at the time, but over 50 years later I distinctly remember one joke where John Cleese, Ronny Barker and Ronnie Corbett represented the British upper, middle and working classes. Not sure I'd watch it again as I suspect the humour would be highly dated.

Around this time the NZBC made a sketch show In View of the Circumstances starring (Amongst others) Joe Mustaphia and Pat Everson. I fondly recall a couple of Joe's sketches, but it was stylistically influenced by the British sketch shows. The one thing I got from it was the knowledge that Kiwis could be funny and there was an alternative to rugby.

Then At Last the 1948 Show (1967) appeared. With many of the comedians who later went on to make Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Goodies in the cast. Most people think the Four Yorkshiremen skit came from Monty Python but it was originally from this show and has been covered several times by other comedians. I preferred the original version but can't tell you if that's because I saw it through young eyes or because they did it better. 1948 only lasted for two series & has been eclipsed by the successor shows. At the time I laughed a lot, but can remember very little detail. Once again I'd probably not bother watching it again.

Happening alongside these were Milligan's Q series. At the time I thought them amusing but after the first few series I felt that he was largely capitalising on  his earlier success and by the last series even as a child I could see that his comic timing had gone. It was sad seeing someone I admired not being funny.

Dave Allen was another that influenced me. I loved his television sketch show & went to see his solo show when he toured New Zealand in the early 1980s. One joke he told was how you could prove anything with statistics, such as a certain percentage of men were gay and a certain percentage of married women were having affairs so logically there must be a percentage of married women having affairs with gay men. At that stage in my life I was officially gay and my then girlfriend was officially still married we looked at each other and decided to go and introduce ourselves. In those simpler days that was possible & soon we saw him in his dressing room. He was quite amused by finding out his joke was actually true.

Monty Python. What can I say about Monty Python? To this day I can quote a number of their sketches (Probably not accurately). They had me rolling on the floor in the lounge & their spin-off movies were amazing but, when I look at my own comedy, I don't see them there. I strongly believe that as a child of the 60s & 70s their influence on me is actually stronger than I can know. Unfortunately time has not been kind to them, I watched the complete TV series on DVD a few years back and what had once been so groundbreaking now looked quaint in many spots and as for their proclivity for cross dressing ...

Then there are the Billies, T James and Connolly. Once again Billy T James is an icon & one of my regrets is I only know him through television variety shows. I wish I'd been able to see his pub stand-up comedy routines from his early days.

Billy Connolly on the other hand ... a friend of mine in the early 1980s had him on vinyl. I loved his visit to Rome material and then I went to see him live when he toured New Zealand in the mid to late 1980s. I was amazed at how he was telling a story then before completing that story would go off on an aside & before completing that go off on another aside & ... then came back down the stack completing each story as he went. Billy Connolly that night was the person who convinced me I wanted to do stand-up. How's that for an influence? Oh, and we both use the F word a lot on stage.

After Billy I can't see a lot of influences in my comedy until I started watching live comedy in the 2010s in Auckland.

I've been influenced by too many of the established comedians in New Zealand to list.

For a start those Maori, Polynesian and Asian comedians who showed me how it is possible to be funny while calling out racism and the women comedians who showed the same for calling out sexism. They've taught me I can do the same for transphobia.

Of special note, The Fan Brigade for making anti-sexism funny in song.

A big shout out to David Correos who has a unique inimitable style and taught me that it's OK to be different on a New Zealand stage.

Another big shout-out to Ren Lunicke and Justine Smith who's respective life-story shows in 2017 were both affirming and helped inspire me to my decision to do my story as a non-comedy show in the 2018 Fringe.

Not influences as such but most comedians I've met have been wonderfully supportive of my transition. The first time I appeared as Julia the MC was TM Bishop after my set she asked me if this was real or just for the stage. When I said it was real, she nodded and said "OK." I've felt supported by her ever since. When I was having a bit of a rut and having trouble writing new material or believing in my old material Brendhan Lovegrove still believed I was funny and kept giving me gigs.

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